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Where These Buffalo Roam There's Nothing to Sing About
An ample supply of pure drinking water is something most people in the northeast take for granted.
But not Terry Township residents Jason and Janet Otis.
Since last summer they've been using water trucked in and pumped into an 1,100 gallon plastic container called a buffalo tank that's located in their front yard. They use the buffalo water for bathing and other household needs. Their drinking water is delivered in five-gallon containers.
Jason and Janet have lived in their home located along Route 187 about a mile from the village of Terrytown since 2007. It's the first home they purchased.
They never had problems with their water. A couple years ago when they had it tested so they could provide foster care for children, the water was shown to be fine.
But everything changed last summer on Tuesday, Aug. 10 when Jason and Janet returned home at 1 a.m. after spending a long day working at the Wyalusing Firemen's Carnival. That's when they discovered their pure water was gone. "When I started to take a shower, all that came out was mud," Janet recalls.
Just two days before their water turned muddy, drilling had started on a gas well that's just over 500 feet from their home. Jason suspected the well was the reason for their muddy water and called an emergency number he found posted at the well site. The next morning they received a phone call from Chesapeake Energy, and by 9 a.m. there was a man from Chesapeake at their door. "I have to admit their initial response was fairly quick," Janet recalls.
"They gave us two cases of small water bottles and that was it," Janet says. Jason and Janet raise Olde English Bulldogges and when Jason said they needed water for their seven dogs, they were told water couldn't be provided for dogs. Jason ended up commandeering an out-of-service tanker from the Wyalusing fire hall and used it to haul in a load of water for their dogs. In the meantime, Jason and Janet traveled to her parents' home in Camptown to shower and they decided to have their son Domanick move in full-time with his grandparents.
On Thursday, Aug. 12, Chesapeake agreed to provide a buffalo tank, but wanted the Otises to sign a form releasing Chesapeake from responsibility for the water problem. "We flatly refused," Jason said, adding that he and Janet had attended a seminar on gas well drilling where they learned that when problems developed with a water source located less than 1,000 feet from a well site, the gas company is responsible, not the home owner. The following day, Aug. 13, the buffalo tank was delivered and set up in their front yard.
But Jason and Janet opted not to drink water from the buffalo tank, thanks to the following statement from Chesapeake: "We cannot tell you to drink the water or tell you not to drink the water, however, we can highly recommend that you do not drink this water."
So Jason and Janet get their drinking water from 10 five-gallon jugs that Chesapeake has delivered to their house every two weeks. "You don't realize how much water you use until it's gone and you have to get it from a buffalo tank or a five gallon jug," Janet says. A tank truck refills the buffalo tank about twice a week, but it's often empty before the truck arrives, Janet says.
Winter and the buffalo tank aren't a good combination either. Despite the tank being outfitted with a heater and heat tape added to the line leading to their home, the Otis's were without water 15 out of 28 days in February due to freezing. "We would call, leave a message saying our water is frozen, but our calls weren't returned," Jason says. Apparently the tank's heaters were too much for the electrical system in the Otis's house and frequently tripped a circuit breaker. To remedy the problem, Jason says Chesapeake covered the cost of installing a 200 amp electrical service to replace the existing 100 amp service and installed an outdoor ground fault receptacle.
As for the muddy well, Jason says they are required to run their pump two hours per day to flush the mud out of the water. "It's improved," Jason says, "but it's still cloudy." And even worse, he says testing has found elements in their water that shouldn't be there.
Along with working with Chesapeake, the Otises have contacted DEP, which has conducted tests of their water. And, unlike other homes that have experienced water problems suspected to be linked with gas well drilling, there is no methane in the Otis's water.
But testing has revealed that things like iron, manganese and lead are beyond levels recognized as safe for drinking water and were not above acceptable levels in tests conducted prior to drilling. The turbidity or muddiness that first alerted the Otises of the problem has diminished but test results show it's still above the acceptable level for drinking water. When the Otises first had their water tested, there was no turbidity detected. Levels of bicarbonate alkalinity are also above safe drinking water standards. A total of 15 elements found in the Otis's water have shown an increase since drilling began, however, only the previously mentioned items are at levels considered unsafe.
So now seven months after they were forced to stop using water from their well, the Otises aren't sure what they'll do.
"One option could be selling our property to Chesapeake," Jason says. But he says finding another location with 13.6 acres that they like as much as their current home could be difficult and definitely expensive based on increasing real estate prices.
Another option being offered by Chesapeake would be to have a filtration system installed, but Janet says that is their last choice. "Filtration systems can be expensive to maintain and operate, and who knows what's in the water that we cannot see."
And it's pretty much the same with drilling another well. "Who's to say that won't become contaminated, too?" Jason says. "They haven't even fracked this well yet. What's going to happen then?"
"We're at a point where we aren't sure if we can trust the water anymore," Janet says.
To help resolve the dilemma, Jason and Janet have hired a lawyer who is working with others facing similar problems. "This isn't about getting rich," Jason says. "We supported gas drilling here in this region and realize that it's created lots of jobs. But they created this problem with our water and now they need to fix it. We didn't make this happen, they did."
"All we want is our water back," Janet adds. "I'd say that's not asking for too much. All we want is our home."
After spending a long day working at the Wyalusing Firemen's Carnival last August, Jason Otis and his wife, Janet, returned to their Terry Township home to find their water had turned to something that resembled the color of hot chocolate. Seven months later their water is now only cloudy, but they're still unable to drink it .Photo by David Keeler
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